End of Code-School of Art - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

End of Code

This is your brain on James Duesing. Any questions?

No spoiler alert: this is the story of an erudite homosexual cyborg rabbit and his passionate steak-face shapeshifter partner trying to hack the traffic lights system of an already jammed city.

It might or might not be the story of an unidentified corporation / terrorist organization ruled by a disembodied brain obsessed with mass-media, also conspiring to control the traffic flows, possibly overcoming dysfunctional personal relationships between over-sexualized human-animal employees.

You might try to wrap your mind around the intentions and idiosyncrasies of this parade of freaks while End of Code wraps itself around your mind, bending and blending time and space, regressing and digressing into a George-Washington-in-drag intimate life, warping from existential slapstick comedy to awkward post-structuralist freestyle rap.

This is Computer Graphic animation from a parallel dimension where Disney runs a chain of mental institutions, a guided tour to Uncanny Valley's best kept secrets, a sublime, transcendental meditation on power, technology, desire and God knows what else. I reached James Duesing, colleague and hero, quite possibly the only person who can be in the MoMA, on MTV and at SIGGRAPH in the same lifespan, for a quick interview.

PP: 15 minutes, 5 years in the making, End of Code is a slowly cooked hyper-concentrated cocktail ready to explode in our face with its dense dialogues and fractal storytelling. How do you conceive such a multi-layered and multi-referenced script?

JD: In terms of narrative, I think of all my animations as having a fairly simple story, the world the characters exist in is complicated so it is difficult to draw a straight line between all of the events. The multiple layers/references comes from treating each animated character as a fully developed being, even if the viewer only sees a small fragment of their life. Usually the viewer encounters characters when they have a complaint or observation that has been formed by a significant amount of action off screen. It is not a terribly new idea for how to approach narrative, at least as far back as Laurence Stern's Tristram Shandy writers interested in humor and social observations have hung a lot of information on a slight framework. I admit it is a somewhat unusual, perhaps even unique, way to approach an animated short.

PP: You started with traditional animation in the 80s and switched to computer graphics as soon as it was available. What’s next? Are you going to adopt and hijack the 3D goggle technology Hollywood is trying to sell us so desperately? Or experiment with real-time 3D engines? Is it technological advancement important at all? Back to wireframes?

JD: I never say never, but it seems unlikely I will start making things that have to be seen through goggles, although it is very easy to convert a scene to 3D in Maya. There would have to be a reason for it though. I've been collaborating with Jessica Hodgins on the last two projects and I continue to be interested in applications for motion capture, particularly having human data drive things that are not the solid geometry one thinks of as an animated character. We are still developing the next project, but it is using mocap to personify things that are not usually perceived as being alive.

If technological advancement wasn't important I wouldn't have stopped animating by hand and started working with computers 25 years ago. All my projects have some technical challenge and new tools keep being developed, now there are so many possible ways to use technology I have to edit. Even though my first computer animation technically addressed the transition to more accessible technology, I don't currently have any interest in making work that is visually reductive or obviously digitized. There is a lot of that work out there and it is popular, but I don't see a place for me in it. The history of animation is also the history of technology, animation changed as technology developed throughout the 20th century. From my perspective, to make work that is relevant and not reactionary or retro is to fully engage with and push the tools available at this point in time. That said, tools do not exist in a vacuum. Without ideas there is no point, for me it is about using current tools to create cinematic experiences that comment on or challenge current social, political or aesthetic conventions. That is what artists have always done.

PP: There’s a huge demand for 3D modelers and animators in the commercial world. It seems that all the art students interested in this field end up modeling bouncing boobs for video games characters or working for big-budget animated movies. Is this the reason why there are so few James Duesing around? How can we convince these kids to make their own weird-ass movies and live a fulfilling life with less-than-stellar paychecks?

JD: Ha! I don't think the world needs another James Duesing. Pedagogically, I am not an activist teacher, I make my ideas clear, but I think it’s important to allow people to discover their own paths and to nurture that as much as possible. You can't make work without the necessary skills, and we live in a time where certain skills are marketable. That was not always the case, the American animation industry virtually collapsed in the 1970's, which was a particularly rich time for independent work. As in any field, there is a critical roll for understanding contemporary animation and how its history has been shaped by individual artists and the times in which they lived. The fact is, some of those artists have worked from inside industry and others have not.

My hope is that the students coming out of our program are entering the world with their eyes as open as possible, to all the potential ways that animation can be implicated in our culture. If they have developed conceptual skills, technical skills and an understanding of the history of the field, these things will serve them well, whatever direction they choose.

By: Paolo Pedercini, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art [ETB], artscool@andrew.cmu.edu, 412.268.2409